There’s a scene in the 90s movie Matilda that bothered me when I first saw it and thanks to a re-watch on Netflix, it bothers me to this day. Granted there are a lot of bothersome images in that film but this one in particular is where Danny DeVito’s character, the dad, told his six-year-old daughter, “I’m big, you’re small, I’m smart, you’re dumb, I’m right, you’re wrong!” as if age equals wisdom or maturity. The sad fact is, a lot of adults feel this way about kids, hence the rather toxic tendency to talk at or talk down to children. Then they wonder why when they ask, “How was school today?”, they get monosyllabic responses. Remember, children may be little people, but they are people in the sense that they need the same respect that we do. A foundation for any relationship is communication. To have better relationships, you have to have better conversations. Here are seven ways you can have better conversations with your kids.
It sounds absurd but it’s first on this list because most parents don’t do this enough or well. Often, we multitask. Yes, we’re all busy so we ask our kids questions when we’re setting the table, folding clothes, or with our phone in hand. Set aside ten undistracted minutes, every evening at bedtime, as a time to talk–a time to fully listen to your child and share stories. If she says that she has nothing to talk about, tell her about something that happened in your day. Expressing enthusiastic interest in your child’s interests is a sure way to get them to engage, even if these are not the interests you would choose.
You might have seen pictures on your feed of Prince William and Kate Middleton crouching down to speak to Prince George. They do this so they’re at eye-level with their child, an active listening gesture. Child development expert, Gill Connell writes “Active listening is one of the most important ways you can send the message, ‘You’re important to me.’ Get down on the child’s level, lean in, and make eye contact.”
A door-opener is a non-coercive invitation extended to another to talk–an invitation to get started, to say something about what he or she is thinking or feeling. Here are some examples of door-openers:
“No way! And then what?”
“What do you think?”
“What else can you tell me about that?”
“That’s a good question. How do you think this happened?”
“That’s interesting. What more can I hear about?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I see. So what’s your next step?”
Notice anything in the questions above? They are all open-ended. Questions can be a barrier to communication when they focus on the listener rather than on the speaker. To avoid directing your children into your ideas about the conversation, ask open-ended questions so that they can explore their thoughts. Only ask one question at a time to avoid disrupting the flow of conversation.
You’re not having a conversation if you’re just talking at someone. “If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog,” says professional conversationalist Celeste Headlee. “You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn… sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion.” This applies to your conversations with anyone, regardless of age.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the optimal ratio of positive-to-negative comments for peak-performing teams in the business world is 5-to-1. Research on strong marriages by marriage and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman shows a similar ratio to be true in strong marriages–couples with a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative comments are much less likely to divorce. Keeping the 5-to-1 ratio in mind when interacting with children builds the strength of the relationship.
If you are frequently judgmental of other people, your children may think that you will also be critical and judgmental of them. Your children are watching. They learn through our example and you are the person whose approval they crave for the most. The truth is, a lot of our psychological issues as adults stem from what we wish we could’ve told or heard from our parents growing up. We can choose to communicate our love better and be better parents.